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How Sarawak’s 22-Year-Old Rainforest World Music Festival Kept Its Authenticity

Home sweet home. It was only my second time at the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) in Sarawak but coming back here felt like a balik kampung trip.

Held annually at the Sarawak Cultural Village at the foothills of Mount Santubong, RWMF is the biggest and best music festival in Malaysia. It’s an award-winning 3-day celebration of heritage, arts, music, and culture, bringing together renowned world musicians to Sarawak. It’s 3 days of partying to indigenous music, folk music and neo-traditional music.

Girl smiling as she enters the Rainforest World Music Festival's entrance

Helloooooo Rainforest World Music Festival 2019!

(Listen to our unofficial RWMF 2019 on this Spotify playlist while you read this article)

It was everything I had missed and more. Matt and I tried our hips at the Funana dance from Cape Verde, learnt to play the Orang Ulu musical instrument sape, got blown away by a throat-singing cross-cultural band consisting of musicians from China, France, Mongolia and Sweden; and watched amusedly at a Bhutan band using what looks like a giant petai as a shaker.

Two musicians on stage playing with one holding a pea pod-shaped shaker

Druk Folk Musician from Bhutan playing with instruments I have never seen before

Our souls were full, but now we were hungry.

A little drizzle cooled the humid weather as we tucked into a traditional Bidayuh meal (with midin, grilled chicken and bamboo rice) at a stall next to a longhouse.

We shared a table with Oliver, a German, and his Australian wife Donna, and soon the 4 of us started gushing over our favourite bands.

This was Oliver’s 3rd time at RWMF. He attended the very first RWMF way back in 1998 at this very same location. It inspired him so much that he returned in 2016, and again this year, dragging his wife along. I asked Oliver how has RWMF changed over the last 22 years.

“It’s bigger and better.”

Bigger and better

A Moroccan band performing on stage

One of my favourite bands – Mehdi Nassouli from Morocco!

Bigger does not always mean better in this era of profit-making and bottom line-maximizing, but RWMF seemed to have escaped the dreaded over-commercialization in its growth from a modest 1-stage festival with 300 people, to a 5-stage extravaganza with over 100 performers and 23,000 festival goers.

RWMF hasn’t use, or rather, doesn’t need a Beyoncé to boost ticket sales. In fact, none of the headlining musicians were big crowd pullers (except homegrown heroes At Adau). They may be anonymous to the layperson, but eery band that performed were mind-blowingly good.

But it wasn’t just the band selection that has escaped the throes of commercialization. Food and drinks here were affordable, starting at RM10. Beers were RM13. Drinking water was free, and there was a huge sustainability plan with compost bins, biodegradable takeaway cutleries, and not a single-use plastic bottle on sale.

Most importantly, there were few pretentious glitter-faced #hoechellas. What you have instead are postmodern hippies, hipster Ibans, families with young children, and grandparents. The crowd transcends beyond party-hard millennials and music lovers, it is a ‘camp’ for people who love travelling, discovering and exploring new cultures through music.

Colourful garbage bins decorated and painted creatively

These garbage bins were so preeeettyyyy

Girl posing with a heavily tattoed man dressed in Sarawak traditional wear

Met many interesting people at RWMF, including Alang who is an Iban but actually really Australian

(Fun tip: RWMF started two years before Coachella!)

Keeping true

Sarawak-native Emir has had yearly family gatherings at RWMF since he was a kid. He said though it has been corporatized, RWMF never lost its essence of serving as a platform for little-known indigenous music to grow.

How is this possible? The Sarawak Tourism Board owns RWMF, but even government agencies are cash strapped. Is it because the tourism board’s goal is to create a spin-off economy from the festival, rather than profit directly from it? In 2018, they estimated a RM45mil spin-off economy, and this year they are targeting to achieve RM47mil.

The woman behind the festival, music director Yeoh Jun-Lin struggled to find an answer.

“There’s always been talk about privatization and making it a more financially-viable venture… but Sarawak Tourism Board haven’t come down on me to say you need to have a Michael Jackson or Backstreet Boys or BTS,” she said.

Jun-Lin admits that there is a fear that one day, everything will change. It’s a story that is all too familiar to many of us – the industry is going downhill.

“It’s hard, festivals all over the world are shutting down. Woodstock is not happening this year, live music is difficult, everything is online. And a lot of it has to do with funding.”

Easter Island and Chilean dancers in costume

Managed to photographed the Ballet Folclorico de Chile Bafochi dancers from Easter Island and Chile as they were headed to a workshop.

As a plus point, Jun-Lin said there is really no point in bringing in famous world musicians, thus giving her more freedom to cherry pick obscure talents from the deepest corners of the world.

“I could bring the King of World Music in Europe and pay a lot of money, and yet no one here would know him as they would know sting or Beyonce or whoever.”

“So to me, you don’t need to bring in a rockstar to sell the festival. I’m hoping people will come to hear something they wouldn’t hear otherwise. It’s a discovery of music you won’t hear every day.”

Ainu Japanese musician Oki performing on stage

Ainu Japanese musician Oki

Rainforest World Music FestivaL History

Rainforest World Music Festival grounds

The RWMF festival ground is surrounded by the forest, and it’s gorgeous

Jun-Lin has been curating RWMF ever since its birth 22 years ago. She said it all started because traditional music was dying during the 1990s.

“Traditional music wasn’t cool anymore. It was cooler to play the guitar and drum kit. Only grandmas play traditional music, no one listens because it was boring… We wanted to preserve the cultural roots that we all came from, and a festival in Kuching sounded quite cool,” she said.

The decision to start a world music festival was a ‘why not’ moment. But they soon realised they had embarked on a Mulu Pinnacles-sized challenge.

Sarawakians weren’t interested at all. They didn’t want to perform nor attend a festival with traditional music. Their Malaysian modesty worked against them.

“Some local bands didn’t want to play because they said no one wanted to listen to our music. No one will pay ticket to listen to us, it will be a flop.” Jun-Lin and her team had to literally beg the local bands to perform. They would feature any band who would be willing to play.

In a strange way, Jun-Lin said they had to bring in foreign bands to show off their culture, to prove to the locals that traditional music was cool.

Only 9 bands performed at RWMF 1998.

people having a picnic and playing music by the lake

Festival goers having their own little performance during sunset

~♩*♪♫~

It’s Day 3, the finale of the RWMF. I’m in my blue tie-dyed dress swaying to Duplessy & The Violins Of The World. There’s a medium-sized crowd at the stage, with most people chilling at the back with tuak and beers.

Suddenly, right before Duplessy’s last set, a massive rush of Sarawakians swarmed to the stage like an army of ants. They stood there passionately shouting for At Adau.

“AT ADAU! AT ADAU! AT ADAU!” The crowd swelled to fill the entire field. It was a frenzy.

At Adau is perhaps the most popular Sarawakian band that plays a mix of traditional and contemporary music. Armed with aboriginal musical instruments like the sape and nose flutes, the 6 musicians are no grandmas. They are only in their 20s and 30s, and boy were they good. The crowd went crazy as At Adau performed like rock stars with traditional instruments that were once thought to be uncool. As soon as At Adau finished their set, half the crowd returned to their tuak and beers as a Morrocan band took the stage.

No other international band would command as much excitement as these local boys.

It was such a departure from Jun-Lin’s description of the early days of RWMF. In 1998, only grandmas listened and played traditional music. In 2019, the youngest sape performer at RWMF was 5 years old.

Girl playing sape

Failing miserably at playing the sape during a workshop

RWMF has successfully incubated a love of the local heritage, popularised folk music in its home state and exposed Sarawak traditional music to the rest of the world. By giving a platform or voice or opportunity for folk musicians like living legend Matthew Ngau, it has encouraged a young generation of folk musicians to emerge as well.

When you look at RWMF 2019, it’s hard to imagine how bootstrapped the festival once was. RWMF has achieved its mission to revive traditional music, but it has no plans to stop yet. RWMF 2020 is set to excite again.

However, for Jun-Lin, the headache of curating another Rainforest World Music Festival is just about to start. Jun-Lin is somewhat of a magician. She has curated close to 20 RWMFs, but every year she manages to pull a new rabbit out of the hat.

What can we expect from the Rainforest World Music Festival 2020?

“I would expand of the Indigenous Stage and the Gathering Of The Tribes,” she said.

Would it be bigger and better?

“We shall see.”

~♩*♪♫~

Crowd cheering as fireworks lit up a stage filled with performers

The finale of RWMF 2019, when all the performers and volunteers get up on stage

RWMF 2020 is scheduled for July 10 to July 12, 2020. Ticket prices typically start at RM140 for a adult one-day pass (early bird) and RM345 for a 3-day pass (early bird). There are also festival packages for families, and hotel+festival packages. More info available on the official RWMF website.

RWMF Tip: Book your accommodation early. Hotels near the festival grounds are booked out a year in advance. Hotels around Kuching (40 mins away) are also fully-booked months in advance.

Girl playing the tambourine during a drum circle

At the evening drum circle!

What to do in Sarawak after The rainforest world music festival:

Discovering Sarawak’s Kayan Tribe Thorough A ‘Secret Harvest Festival’
The Complete Guide To Completing Sarawak’s Mulu Pinnacles
Is It Weird To Go To A Music Festival Alone?

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